NEW DELHI- The Indian Army is staring at a transport crisis in supplying and maintaining troops at the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battlefield, with the main lifeline of soldiers at the extreme heights - light, high-altitude choppers - facing a shortage crisis due to stalled procurement by the last government and two crashes in the last nine months that have raised serious safety questions on the available fleet.
Such is the crisis that the emergency alternative Cheetal choppers, orders for which were placed by both the Army and Air Force, have been tested by manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) in the past month but have failed high-altitude tests in Leh due to a lack of high-performance rotor blades, according to Indian Express report today.
A number of top Army, Air Force and industry officials who spoke to the newspaper, acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and expressed helplessness, given that successive crisis management plans were nixed over the past few years.
While the crisis was developing for a while, with the UPA-II government not clearing the Army's five-year-old proposal to purchase 197 light helicopters at the final stage of procurement due to a CBI inquiry into competitor AgustaWestland that lost during the technical trials, the last nine months have seen at least two "category one" crashes at the glacier that have gone unreported and have raised serious concerns.
Both the crashes involved the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) that had been inducted by Army Aviation to work well beyond their design capacity to supply troops at high altitudes. In August, a chopper crashed while landing close to the Amar helipad on the Siachen Glacier and went down a crevasse. Similarly in March this year, another ALH went down on the northern glacier while landing at a narrow helipad.
"The two accidents occurred at a time when the choppers were taking off or landing at extremely narrow airfields where even a freak wind can cause havoc. In both cases, the pilots managed to jump out in time and only got injured. Both aircraft are damaged beyond repair and one cannot even be recovered," said an Army official on condition of anonymity.
The reason that the Army had been forced to deploy heavier ALH choppers to supply the brigade-plus deployment of troops on Siachen was that the workhorse Cheetah fleet was on its last legs, having served for over two decades. The entire Cheetah fleet of the Army and Air Force had almost reached the end of its service life, with replacements hard to be found given that the original equipment manufacturer had ceased to manufacture new parts.
While the Army has been unsuccessfully trying to procure replacement choppers for over five years, an emergency alternative being planned has also not worked out. With the 197 light chopper deal being held up, the Air Force and Army sought to procure 30 light Cheetal choppers from HAL - essentially the same as Cheetahs but with a stronger Shakti engine - as an emergency alternative.
The Army is already believed to have raised this particular issue with the new government in place, given that the choppers are critical to troops posted on the glacier. Besides dropping food and ammunition to troops posted at altitudes of over 20,000 feet, the choppers are the only lifeline during extreme weather when land routes shut down.